Priors and Prejudice
By David Henderson
When I was in twelfth grade (in Canada, we called it Grade 12), one of the main novels we studied was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I read it once because I was supposed to, twice to be able to answer questions on exams, and the third time because I loved it.
I seem, though, to keep forgetting the message. One of the easiest things in the world is to, like Elizabeth Bennett, form strong prior views about someone based on not enough information. That brings me to something I discovered yesterday.
Yesterday, I spent a large part of my day going through boxes of archival documents at the Hoover Institution archives. I’m researching the 1978 Hong Kong Mont Pelerin Society meetings, the first ones I attended, and the 1980 Hoover Mont Pelerin Society meetings, to prepare a presentation I’ll give at the meetings next month.
I had a kick. Seeing the various letters people wrote about whether they were or weren’t coming brought back a lot of memories, mostly fond, and brought on a lot of sadness about people I interacted with there who are now gone, many of them long gone. One of them was journalist John Chamberlain, whom I ran into in the hotel lobby at about midnight, when I couldn’t sleep, and he and I walked around Hong Kong from midnight until about 1 a.m.
But the story I want to tell here is different. I had a friend in graduate school (I’ll call him John) and he and I knew another graduate student (I’ll call him Bill) who, I’m pretty sure, was brighter than both of us. As we got to know him and I reached out to him, he seemed uninterested. The view that John and I formed over a few years of interacting with Bill was that Bill cared only about himself.
Yesterday I found a letter Bill had written to one of the big shots at the Mont Pelerin Society who was sending invites to young scholars. The MPS was offering enough money that, if you were careful, you could pay most of your expenses with. Bill wrote that, regretfully, he couldn’t arrange his schedule to make the meeting, but he strongly recommend John.
I was stunned. I never imagined that. I’m still friends with John. So on the way home, I called John and asked, “When you think about Bill, what do you think?” John answered, “I think that Bill cared only about Bill.”
“That’s what I thought too,” I said, and then I told him about Bill’s letter recommending him. John was almost speechless.